Ajax in Iraq
Reviewed by Lyle Zimskind
Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble
Through August 14
The Sophoclean drama Ajax offers one of the earliest psychological depictions of a mighty warrior who ends up wracked by a condition we might now identify as PTSD. In that classical Greek play this trauma is explained as the wile of an intervening deity, the goddess Athena. In Ellen McLaughlin’s 2011 Ajax in Iraq, the descent of the mythic soldier (Aaron Hendry) into suicidal madness is paralleled with the contemporary tragedy of A.J. (Courtney Munch), a heroic female U.S. soldier in Iraq who is irretrievably tormented by the sexual predations of her commanding sergeant (James Bane) with no intervention from the chilly Athena (Joanna Rose Bateman).
Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble is currently reprising the L.A. production of Ajax in Iraq which it premiered in 2014. Directed and choreographed by NMA founder John Farmanesh-Bocca, along with current co-artistic director Jones Welsh, this staging vitally enhances McLaughlin’s occasionally plodding play with the company’s signature kinetic moments of individual and ensemble bodies in motion and an expressive production design. The arresting full-cast dance piece that kicks off the performance, for example, enmeshes us in the brutality of the war enterprise far more viscerally than the subsequent opening dialogue, which rehashes the now-familiar litany of political and strategic problems with the conduct of the Iraq campaign.
The surfeit of secondary characters we meet in the contemporary Iraq war segments of Ajax in Iraq would diffuse our attention from the central horror of A.J.’s ordeal if not for the gravitational strength of Munch’s characterization. Even before we learn the specific nature of her ordeal, Munch powerfully conveys the toll of her war experience. Bane (a real-life Marine who served two tours in Iraq before taking up professional acting) is not just menacing but disturbingly cold in the role of the iniquitous nameless rapist sergeant. As A.J.’s confidante, Mangus, Sydney A. Mason effectively provides a contrasting strong conscience.
NMA co-artistic director Hendry is a powerful presence as Ajax, the quondam war hero who cannot control the impulses that propel his senseless acts of violence back on the home front. If the Athena in Ajax in Iraq is more of an attitudinal Greek chorus figure than a fully developed character subject to human motivations — well, she is a goddess, after all, and Bateman’s apparent indifference to the fray she presides over imbues us with a feeling of helplessness at the physical and emotional carnage of the events unfolding before us.
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 14. (323) 673-0544, www.notmanapart.com. Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.